Forgotten Women: Theodora – from sinner to saint
Theodora – from sinner to saint
By Kerry Fry
Writer, Executive Coach and Mentor
Picture credit: Petar Milosevic
Around the 4thcentury AD, a new religion began to rise throughout the Roman Empire. The emperor Constantine was said to have converted to Christianity and founded a new capital in the east of the empire, Constantinople. The Roman ideal portrayed women’s roles as domestic, and although they were not restricted to the household, they had little to do with public life or positions of power. Good women occupied their time quietly with virtuous domestic work like wool weaving, whereas those with occupations like bar work or acting were on the opposite end of the virtuous/disreputable spectrum. In a reflection of ancient Greek ideas, the arrival of Christianity further polarised women into two categories: on the one hand you had the Virgin Mary, the very definition of purity, and on the other you had Eve, the first woman and the root of all evil. The concept of self-mastery was considered a virtue and women in Constantinople were faced with mastering near impossible standards – if you couldn’t be as saintly and pure as the Virgin Mary herself, you must therefore be a sinner.
This early Christian view of outspoken women as the source of moral pollution and silence as the preferred weapon against it was captured in Timothy 2.11.15: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.”
In an environment like this, it is difficult to imagine any woman being able to assert herself, her knowledge, or her authority without repercussion. However, I’d like to share with you the story of an incredible woman who challenged the idea that women were either one thing or another, who elevated herself from sinner to saint and became the first modern woman to forge her own route to power.
Born into the lowest classes of Byzantine society, Theodora worked as an actress, perhaps even as a prostitute, when she met Justinian I the heir to the throne. In this period, marrying a woman of such a scandalous profession was against the law, so in an unprecedented move the law was changed and when Justinian took the throne in 527AD, Theodora was proclaimed empress. Although never officially co-ruler, Theodora used her intelligence and political acumen to transform herself into a powerful influence and her husband’s most trusted advisor. Her image captured in mosaic at the Basilica of San Vitale even suggests she ruled as his intellectual and political equal.
This is not actually that hard to believe, after all her name is mentioned in almost all the laws that passed during Justinian’s rule. Her influencecan be seen in those laws that expanded the rights of women, the closure of brothels and the creation of safe houses. When plague hit Constantinople and struck down the emperor, it was Theodora who ran state affairs whilst he recovered. When a revolt broke out, it was Theodora who spoke out and convinced Justinian to stay and save his empire rather than flee.Following the riots, they rebuilt the city with magnificent architectural testaments to their joint rule. Theodora ensured her name would never be forgotten. An inscription within The Little Hagia Sophia, originally a church and now a mosque, celebrates her triumphs. Finally, her transformation from sinner to saint was complete.
Although these early Christian views of women as either pure or flawed are less extreme today, their echo and influence can still be felt. Today, Istanbul stands where Constantinople once was. Women in modern day Turkey are fighting for the role that Theodora once had – one outside the boundaries of wife and mother, one that is equal to that of men. There is still a challenge globally to stamp out that echo of the Eve-like outspoken woman, the woman who wants power, autonomy, action. But the Theodora’s of this world are not left in the past, a one-hit wonder. There’s lots of us out there. And we’re not willing to stay quiet and stay home either.
BBC History ‘Roman Women: Following the Clues’ by Suzanne Dixon, 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/romans/roman_women_01.shtml
Kerry is a writer with a passion for empowering women to succeed. Her degree in Ancient History & Archaeology provides a historical lens for her work which focuses on bringing attention to feminist issues, inequalities and celebrating female success – past and present. As a Birmingham-based professional Coach and communication expert, Kerry’s mission is to help women define success for themselves and equip them to go get it. You can find her on LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/in/